On Teaching

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” –George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

We’ve all heard this phrase before, often times in jest. I’ve spent most of my life as a teacher of some kind, from working at a tutoring center to teaching high school algebra and even homeschooling my kids for 11 years. In fact I’d guess that most people have taught in one form or another many times, whether at church or school or within their own families.

There is currently a severe teacher shortage across the nation. It’s no secret teachers don’t get paid much and are often underappreciated, but the shortage is so bad there are salary wars and schools scrambling to get anyone in the door so they have someone to sit in the classroom, no matter their credentials or lack thereof. There are also many college incentive programs and scholarships for those pursuing teaching to help counteract this education crisis we’re facing.

Why the abandonment of teaching? Some of the greatest minds in history were also teachers: Aristotle, Galileo, Mozart, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking. They didn’t just research or study. They didn’t just write and publish. They also taught.

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In recent years a lot of the teaching I do is about writing at either conferences or schools. Though far from an expert, my brief experience and study of the writing craft is sometimes valuable information for others, and I enjoy encouraging aspiring authors to keep learning and moving forward. After all, I was in their shoes just a few short years ago, and it was the help of other authors who encouraged me to do the same.

Writers are some of the most giving people in the world, often sacrificing their time and expertise to teach and help those who want to write as well. But I often notice that at a certain point in their careers, some authors will stop teaching or interacting with aspiring writers altogether. I am 100% behind the idea of protecting one’s time and energy, something that becomes much more precious the busier we get. I am no stranger to saying no when I can’t help, but I think that amongst all the no’s, there should be an occasional yes. It would be a sad thing if those who can teach, just do.

I am in awe of those writers around me who give so freely to aspiring authors. They teach and they support and they uplift and they encourage. I would have quit this writing gig years ago if it weren’t for people like them. As we enter writing conference season, I would encourage everyone to thank those teachers and editors and behind-the-scenes helpers you run into for what they’ve given so freely, solely motivated by their love of writing. I’d also encourage authors to find an opportunity to say yes, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve taught others along their writing path.

Because I believe that those who can do, teach.

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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

The Impact of Teachers

I had the same teacher for both fourth and fifth grades. Her name was Mrs. Tapscott. Many details about her are fuzzy after so many years, but I do remember that she had gray, curly hair and a soft, sweet southern accent. But what I remember most is that she read to us every day. She read THE HOBBIT, and A WRINKLE IN TIME, and THE CAY, and MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN. We were mesmerized by every chapter of every book, drawn in by her expressive voice.

Even back then I wanted to become a writer, but thanks to Mrs. Tapscott I became a reader, too. I can’t say that I always chose books of the caliber she favored. I read plenty of Choose Your Own Adventure, and Sweet Valley High, and every Trixie Belden book ever written. Of course I believe that any time a child picks up a book voluntarily it’s a Very Good Thing. But Mrs. Tapscott taught me—taught all of her students—to seek out quality and variety in the books we chose.

A WRINKLE IN TIME, in particular, stuck with me. It changed me. It was strange and new and important.

Now that a movie of this iconic story has finally been produced, I decided it was time to reread the book, to see how it held up after more than 30 years.

Here’s what I discovered: it was just as weird and wonderful, just as impactful, when viewed through the lens of age and experience. I could see how brave and groundbreaking it was, and how truly unique. I still pictured the characters and settings in much the same way as I had as a child. But things I saw more clearly this time around included the rich symbolism and the power of a strong female protagonist who broke the mold of expectation and was utterly herself. And I fell in love all over again with Charles Wallace’s ethereal calmness and Calvin’s kindness and loyalty.

I think the point I’m working toward is that my teacher chose material that challenged us, that made us think and dream and expand our narrow worlds.

Teachers come in many guises. Not all are teachers in the traditional sense. Some are neighbors, or coaches, or church leaders—or writers. As writers we’ve been given a rare gift: the chance to influence minds young and old, to advocate for kindness and justice, to encourage a thirst for knowledge and truth.

I’m grateful to Mrs. Tapscott, and to the other teachers in my life who made a difference: Mrs. Gray, Mrs. Keeling, Mr. Jacobus, Mr. Duffer, and Dr. Tunnell. Thank you. I will do all I can to pass on your incredible passion and purpose.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Write. Play. Explore.

 

As a former high school English teacher and cross-country coach, I love the chance to connect with kids and young adults. It’s the best part of my current job as an author. Since my first book came out 10.5 years ago, I’ve had a lot of experiences with readers across the country and at my own desk, through travel and emails and shared experiences.

There was the juvenile girls’ detention center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where girls asked me tough and beautiful questions about my own life and about my book Matched, which they had read and discussed as a group. Later that day, I learned from the librarian who had invited me to Kalamazoo that the librarians in the area take turns going over to the detention center at night. While the kids are going to sleep, the librarians read them books over the PA system. For some kids, it’s the first time they’ve been read to sleep. For all of them, it’s a time they can escape into the story. I wept in the front seat of his car and he smiled and handed me a tissue.

There was the day one of my former students wrote me to tell me he’d read my book. “Good job, Mrs. Condie,” he said, and he sent me a picture of his new wife and baby.

There was the assembly in Oxford, Mississippi, where kids called out questions so fast I could barely keep up. They slipped me notes afterwards telling me what they thought of my book, and they had some very good suggestions.

In all of these moments, and many others, I realized that what was happening was not about me at all. Ever. It was about words and what kids bring to them. It was about youth and reading and writing and having the chance to tell their own stories.

Write. Play. Explore.

I started thinking about what I could do in my own community, in Utah. About how I could attempt to bring authors to kids who don’t often see them and authors to places they don’t often visit. My first idea was a Writermobile to drive around and take authors to do school visits or writing workshops in rural areas, but the logistics and costs proved prohibitive. I thought about a writing camp I’d keynoted in Minneapolis, and how wonderful it had been, and thought perhaps we should try something like it in Southern Utah. We could draw in kids from rural areas through scholarship and by using contacts in the school districts. I contacted friends who were writers, teachers, leaders.

And that’s how the WriteOut Foundation was born. It’s a non-profit foundation aiming to create writing camps for rural kids. We’re starting in Cedar City, Utah, with a three day camp that will take kids to a national park, to a Shakespeare play, and which places them in a small classroom setting to workshop with nationally recognized authors. We’re using scholarships for 20% of attendees to make sure we reach those with the greatest financial need. There are also 80 spots open for paying attendees, and we can’t wait until we are at capacity. We are charging only enough to cover the costs of the camp.

I’ve been floored by the generosity of people at SUU (Alisa Peterson, Wendy Temple, and Tasha Seegmiller, among others) in stepping up when our original (and wonderful) liaison left the university. The WriteOut board (Ann Dee Ellis, Krista Bulloch, Brian Jackson, Denise Lund, and Scott Condie) has invested hours and hours without pay. Authors Brandon Mull, Brendan Reichs, Margaret Stohl, and Ann Dee Ellis came on board when it was just an idea and have been extremely generous with their time, with donating books, with staying in local homes to cut down on expenses, and much more.

And the best part of all—we’ve had the most amazing stories shared with us already through the scholarship applications. Students have told us about their battles. Their courage. Their creativity. How much attending this camp would mean to them.

WriteOut Camp is going to be a gathering where it’s safe for kids to talk about and write their stories. If you feel inclined to join us—whether you’re a young writer who wants to attend, a teacher who would like to volunteer, an author who’d like to donate books, or an adult who is willing to donate—we’d LOVE to have you.

www.writeoutcamp.org 

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SonyaSones1

Sonya Sones

Ally Condie is the author of the MATCHED Trilogy, a #1 New York Times and international bestseller. MATCHED was chosen as one of YALSA’s 2011 Teens’ Top Ten and named as one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of 2010. The sequels, CROSSED and REACHED, were also critically acclaimed and received starred reviews, and all three books are available in 30+ languages. Her middle grade debut, SUMMERLOST, is a finalist for the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery.

 

She is the founder of the non-profit WriteOut Foundation, which runs writeoutcamp.org–a writing camp for teens that allows students to work with published authors, experience the outdoors, and enjoy other activities (plays, costume balls, rock climbing, and more).

Ally lives with her husband and four children outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. She loves reading, writing, running, and listening to her husband play guitar. Follow Ally on Twitter and Facebook.

How Your (Other) Career Can Make You a Better Writer

Full-time writer.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have entertained dreams of this concept. Now I am well into my *cough* forties and not a full-time writer, though I personally know a few of these magical creatures. I have another career that demands quite a bit of my time, and I’m perfectly aware that I’m not as prolific as a writer as I could be. I used to battle over this notion, working on my WIPs in the wee hours of the morning until I was stressed and exhausted and a grouchy monster with no possible relief in sight for said grouchiness. This ultimately led to burnout, and on top of that, unhappiness with my inability to better balance my time between my author career (which I love with a passion) and my Associate Professor career (which I also love with a passion). We writers always hear the advice to make writing a priority, and I wholeheartedly agree. BUT  I admit that I sometimes wonder if I can mentally/ emotionally/ physically sustain both careers. (Note that I’m in the middle of finals week as I write this and I feel mentally/ emotionally/ physically exhausted.)  I also have a family that always comes first. And I have important friendships and other interests and even a need to eat now and then and my health to take care of and other matters of life and ALL THE THINGS. *hyperventilates*

But I digress. This post is about career choices — though for me, there really is no choice. I love and need my life as Associate Professor, and I love and need my author life, and so I choose both. But here’s the amazing thing that I figured out rather late in the game (this year). Until recently, I had largely been viewing these two careers as separate and not synergistic. Now I’ve come to realize that I’m a better professor because I’m an author. Likewise, I know that I’m a better author if I embrace my career as a Professor. (I should probably mention here that I’m not an Associate Professor of English or Creative Writing. I’m an Associate Professor of Biology.)

If you aren’t a full-time writer but are working two careers, whether it be Author first and Other second or vice versa, here are some ways you could benefit from embracing both:

  1. Character inspiration: This is not to say that you should necessarily write your boss as a villain (No matter how tempting that may be, this would invalidate that important disclaimer about your characters being fictional and how any resemblance of them to real people is a coincidence). BUT we can’t help that IRL people do serve as character inspirations. Maybe your coworker has a quirky or annoying thing that she does that your character borrows for her own. Maybe your directory of colleagues (or class list – hehe) serves as a potential list for new character names. Writers create real characters by borrowing bits of real people. A former colleague and I used to joke that someday we would write a comic strip about university life because of all of the drama and characters we work with. This hasn’t happened, but I’ve had lots of idea fodder because of my working environment, which I’ll talk about more in #2. But before I get to that, I need to emphasize that one of the most important things that helps us as writers (and human beings in general) is EMPATHY. In working with my students and others, I try to take the time to understand them as people. This helps ME as a person and yes, as a writer.careful_or_youll_end_up_in_my_novel_round_sticker-rae60fc169aa946faa3d08ee493ce1893_v9waf_8byvr_324
  2. Career-based inspiration. As real people serve as character inspiration, your knowledge base and working environment may be a source of inspiration as well. The specifics of this one are obviously dependent on your particular career. John Grisham is probably one of the best-known examples of an attorney who used his background to write his legal thrillers. One of my childhood favorites, Agatha Christie, worked for several years in a pharmacy, which gave her knowledge of drugs (and how they could be used for murder). My YA characters have been known to take science courses, and my inside knowledge of college life makes for a relatable college life for my NA characters. Your particular area of expertise can also help to improve authenticity and be used for elements of world building, no matter how big or small. (BTW, I really love this post by Amanda Rawson Hill on contemporary world building). agatha
  3. Integration. Every day that you write, you become a better writer. (If you don’t believe me, blow off the dust from one of your earliest works and read it.) If you truly enjoy both of your careers as I do, you can seize opportunities within your job to become a better writer. By this, I don’t mean by writing during lunch breaks or while waiting for a copy job to finish (though you could), but by seizing opportunities to do the things that help you become a better writer. Again, this does depend on your career type. A career in floor retail doesn’t afford much opportunity to integrate writing (but imagine the possibilities for #1). Neither does flying helicopters (but imagine the possibilities for #2.) Proofreading reports or legal briefs may help you become better at killing your darlings. Those sales pitches or job presentations may help you become better at pitching your stories. I used to think I had to keep Author life and Professor life completely segregated, but the possibilities for integration keep expanding. For instance, I’ve made great strides to instill the love of reading and the value of scientific AND general literacy in my students. My talented friend and colleague Tasha Seegmiller and I coauthored a scientific paper this year on how to effectively use fiction to promote scientific literacy in biology classes. My other talented friend and colleague (Assistant Professor of Chemistry; see how doable this is?), Elaine Vickers and I were recently accepted as faculty at the 2017 LDStorymakers Conference for our class, Getting It Right: Science in Fiction. These accomplishments are part of my author life AND my professor life, and TBH, I probably would have never dreamed of doing either of these specific things as part of my job if I hadn’t become an author. Also, in grading mountains of scientific papers (finals week – gah!), have become a better editor of my students’ written works (much to their dismay  when they find so much markup on their papers #sorrynotsorry). In my classes, they’re doing scientific and not creative writing, but I still feel it’s my professional duty to teach my biology students about the superiority of active voice over passive voice and why spelling matters (e.g., you know, because the words, “assess” and “asses” have completely different meanings.) But also lessons about why attention to all details is important (a lesson from editing and publishing) and why it’s important to make sure they take care of themselves as people (a lesson from writer life in general).

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In sum, for those of you who, like me, are not full-time writers at this point in time (and maybe never will be), don’t feel like you haven’t “made it” as a writer. Take stock in your entire world and appreciate opportunities for inspiration and whenever possible, integration. There is really something to be said about having the best of both worlds. 🙂

Do you have a career in addition to your writing career? What are some ways in which you’ve managed to have the best of both worlds?

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). As an Associate Professor of Biology, she tries to instill good writing practices and a love of reading into her students. You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com and her professor life at helenboswell.wordpress.com.

 

 

How to Pitch a Class

We Sure Know How to Pick ‘Em!

Every year I oversee the faculty and class selection for an amazing conference held each spring in Utah. You can learn more about it here. The goal is to balance the needs of novice and expert writers, theory with practice, and novelty with the essentials. It’s not easy. I have to comb through nearly 300 class proposals and choose only a fraction of them. Nothing makes me happier than when the people proposing the classes make it even harder for us to decide by pitching amazing ideas.

After looking at over a thousand proposal in the last few years, here’s what jumps out if you want to increase your chances of pitching a winning class proposal.

1. Credentials matter. 

You don’t have to be a bestseller, but you should propose to teach something you have standing in. Also, in the part where a form requests your bio, be sure to include any expertise related to the class you’re proposing.

WRONG WAY: Recently, I vetted a proposal that on the surface I loved, but it dealt with a specific historical period and the instructor’s details were all wrong. It referenced works as examples of that era, but they weren’t actually set in that period. Oops.

ALSO THE WRONG WAY: People pitch marketing classes on how to launch or sell books, but when I go to check their books on Amazon, they have less than a dozen reviews on their titles. This doesn’t inspire confidence that this author has cracked the code for how to sell lots of books.

THE RIGHT WAY: A New York Times bestselling author with five titles to her credit has my attention if she offers to teach about how to pace novels. So does a debut author who offers to teach about writing stories with high concept hooks if his book has a high concept hook. So does an established indie author who offers to teach about characterization if her reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are plentiful and consistently mention how much the readers love the characters.

ALSO THE RIGHT WAY: If you’ve found a technique that has truly changed the course of your writing, propose it. For example, if you’ve found a way to boost your productivity to crazy levels while parenting a brood of little ones, YOU have standing. It’s measurable and worth sharing with others.

2. Novelty matters.

We can always cover the basics. We will always know who can teach introductory classes on dialogue, pacing, tension, etc. What we do not know about are the experts who can come in and teach something applicable to our writers that the average writer can’t Google.

We’ve had pitches from a former LAPD detective volunteering to come in and teach about real crime scene investigation, a geneticist who volunteered to teach about the plausibility of actual creature hybrids, a collector of medieval weapons who brought his massive collection to demonstrate fighting techniques, a medical doctor who took questions about medical situations in people’s novels. SO MUCH YES.

But there are other kinds of novelty too, like classes on how dissecting Joss Whedon’s work can improve storytelling, a class on why stories need an element of surprise and how to craft it, how to produce your own audio books, and why integrating food into your stories enhances the reader’s experience.

3. Voice matters.

We can tell a lot about you as a presenter from your pitch. Sometimes you fool us by writing up a dynamic, engaging proposal but delivering a flat class. However, it rarely happens the other way. Presenters who phone in the proposal almost always phone in the presentation too. To this we say, “Bye, Felicia.”

WRONG WAY: Don’t use generic language that could have been lifted from a university course catalog (or whatever kids use these days to choose classes).

ALSO THE WRONG WAY: Don’t be so over the top creative with the proposal that we can’t tell what you’re actually trying to pitch. (We think either you don’t understand your audience and therefore won’t give you one, or that you may go for flash over professionalism.)

RIGHT WAY: Write it the way you would to entice attendees to come to your class when they have a long list of options to choose from at the same time. Let your pitch show confidence and personality without veering into ego and eccentricity. Also, make it specific enough for potential attendees to understand what they’re getting, otherwise they project their own expectations onto your class and ding you in the evaluations when you don’t deliver.

4. Specificity is KING.

Don’t pitch a class that you don’t know how you’re going to teach. Don’t come up with a cool idea and cobble enough of a vision together to speak in generalities. We know you don’t really know what your class is going to be about yet.

RIGHT WAY: Give details that allow the selection committee to see what unique angle you’re taking over the four other people proposing a similar topic.

I’ll close with some examples of great pitches and a breakdown of why I would love to see them in my conference rotation.

1.“Neil Gaiman once said, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” In this one-hour session, learn the methods and tools reference librarians use to target not just relevant information, but the right information for any type of inquiry. We’ll cover everything from the basics (Boolean operators are your friends, baby!); to primary sources and reference interviews; as well to how to access deep web, search engine-invisible materials. In addition, we’ll cover ways to maximize research travel, interview experts, and verify the accuracy of photos, articles, and other documents. Good research is the foundation of good writing, and just remember . . . Wikipedia is for research wimps! *For the true library neophyte, an ILL is an Interlibrary Loan. We’ll talk about those, too!”

Why it works: Lots of people propose research classes but this is beautiful in its specificity AND the presenter, Courtney Alameda, is an actual librarian.

2. “Get into the trenches of teaching teens to write by writing beside them, in front of them, and all around them. Whether you teach in a school setting, a community education setting, or around your kitchen table, come find tips, tricks, suggestions, and ideas for teaching teens to write fearlessly.”
Why it works: Novelty. Our conference hasn’t had a single class on this in the seven years I’ve been teaching. It’s true that it will appeal to a pretty small swathe of people, but it those will people will be profoundly grateful for the tools they gain—teachers, homeschool parents, authors trying to figure out how to do secondary level school visits.

The presenter, Becca Wilhite, is a published author and a high school English and creative writing teacher who lives the experience she’s offering to teach.

3. “Whether you’re a Beta Reader for your sister, or the most requested editor in your Critique Group, the pressure can do weird things to your ego (and your friendship.) Join YA author RC Hancock for guidelines on how to give your friends the help they need without overwhelming yourself or destroying their creative genius. Also discussed: How to determine crap advice.”

Why it works: Voice. I don’t know anything about this presenter, RC Hancock. I’ve never read his books, and I haven’t even looked at his bio yet, but I can see that he’s succinct about what he’s going to cover, I get a feel for his personality in this proposal, and his touch of humor at the end makes me more likely to trust that he’ll deliver an engaging class.

Seriously, there’s nothing conference organizers want more than to find class ideas they can fall in love with. Go forth and give them some! And if you want to propose classes for the fantastic LDS Storymakers conference, you can do that here. And no, you do NOT have to be LDS to attend or teach—just invested in exceptional storytelling.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

4 Deadly Sins of Presenting at Writing Conferences

I’m the Director of Instruction for a large (700+ people!!!) writing conference in Utah every spring. (It’s called Storymakers, and you should absolutely go, but hurry, because registration is almost full.) My job is to solicit pitches for classes, comb through hundreds of them, choose the fraction I think is best suited for our attendees, schedule 90+ classes, and recruit and coordinate all the faculty.

Wheeeee!

Actually, I do kind of love it. But after we threaten and cajole people into giving us feedback about the classes, I spend some time combing through the data to see what worked, what didn’t, and why. Although this post is what NOT to do, I’ll give you two freebies that are always crowd pleasers according to literally THOUSANDS of feedback forms:

  1. People love feeling like they have a specific tool/technique they can apply to their writing from the second they walk out of a class. 
  2. People love high energy and funny.

There’s your lagniappe. Now, to pay off on the click bait headline that brought you here: these are the most consistent complaints year after year.

Avoiding these pitfalls will land you in the firmly “Nailed It!” instead of “Failed It!” column:

1. People know when a presenter is winging it and they don’t like it. 

At our conference, someone in any given class thought they needed what that presenter was teaching more than what eight other teachers are offering at the same time. They get testy when they know the teacher threw his PowerPoint together an hour before in the breakroom. And trust me, they know. It’s like how kids can hear you unwrapping a candy bar even when you’re hiding in the closet with your bedroom door shut because dear heavens you just need a Snickers to get through it sometimes, you know? Anyway, it’s like that. They can totally sniff it out. All of the evaluations will come in independently of each other and all of them will still call the teacher out for this. It’s eerie.

2. People complain about being “pitched” or “marketed to.” 

There are times when it makes sense to discuss an element of craft in your own work but it’s a fine line before it veers into “Buy my book!” I think the line gets crossed when some unconscious part of a presenter’s demeanor is desperately hoping they’ll make a sale. The attendees just know, man. Sometimes if my own work is the easiest to use as an example, I’ll pull a section from something in progress and say, “You can’t even buy this yet, so this isn’t an ad. Now look at . . .” and work from there. It helps. They know I’m trying to make a point, not a sale. Trust me, if you’re engaging and confident, they go looking for your books and you don’t have to say a word.

3. Low energy is a bummer, man. 

Sometimes it’s just a lack of confidence that manifests as low energy, but when your audience is interpreting your discomfort that way, it tanks your evaluations. There are a couple of cases where I’ve seen presenters characterized as “condescending” or “standoffish” and because I know them personally, I know it’s just nerves. If this is a tendency you have, try to channel it into nervous energy. They’ll still know you’re nervous, but it gets them on your side. They’re waaaay more sympathetic. The comments becoming something more like, “She was nervous, but great energy.”

4. When your description in the course syllabus doesn’t match what you actually deliver, it gives the people the crankies. 

That turns into, “It was a good class, but it’s not really what I thought it was going to be about.” And then *Ding!* Off comes a point here and there. So creative class descriptions are a good way to get people to your class, but make sure they’re clear enough for people to know what you’re teaching about. And since presenters often develop their presentations long after they submit their pitch, double check that you’re teaching what you said you were going to teach. (That’s actually a rare occurrence. Mostly it’s just matter of getting your class description/blurb right.)

Ending on a DON’T is kind of a drag, so here’s one more DO: If you’re passionate about what you’re teaching, the audience comes with you. Every. Time. So DO be excited. If you’re sincerely invested in giving these aspiring writers something that will improve or even transform their writing, they’re going to be excited, and YOU are going to be invited back. Every. Time.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

A Lesson Plan for Elementary School Students: Story Essentials

I had my first official school visit this last week: I was an invited presenter at a university creative writing class. The presentation was a lot of fun–the students were smart, engaged, and asked great questions. Mostly, all I had to do was show up and talk about my forthcoming book and my road to publication. Easy peasy.

Next week, I’ve got a very different kind of school visit: I’ll be doing a series of creative writing classes for my 9-year-old’s third grade class. I’m already a little nervous: their attention span is much shorter, and they require a lot more interaction!

But, for the benefit of anyone else facing a similar school visit, I thought I’d share a few basic ideas.

Setting the groundwork

A long time ago when I first began teaching, I learned a trick to good teaching: introduce a concept, demonstrate it, and then let students apply it.

Since the class is starting a unit on narrative, there a couple of core principles I want to lay down.

1. Stories require conflict.

Most kids (and a lot of grown ups) think all you need to tell a story is have something happen. But that leads to stories that are variations on this happened and then this happened and then this happened and its hard for readers to care. Conflict happens when the main character is thwarted: in other words, as I saw recently on Facebook, if your character is running a race, make sure her shoe laces are tied before she starts.

2. This conflict needs to be character driven.

All good stories have interesting characters. They don’t have to be sympathetic characters, but they do have to be proactive–that is, they have to want something. And there needs to be something that gets in their way. Conflict unfolds naturally as the character tries to overcome their obstacle to get what they want.

Or, as Lincoln Pierce suggests in a recent Big Nate comic strip, writers need to focus on:

  • Somebody
  • Wanted something
  • But they couldn’t get it
  • So they . . .

Big Nate
*from http://www.gocomics.com/bignate/2015/03/08

3. The conflict unfolds in a distinct place

Arguably, there are a lot of elements that go into stories, but for our first unit, I want to focus on these three: character, conflict, and setting. The setting doesn’t have to be unique, but it does have to be clear, because where a story is set can dramatically affect what can happen in the story.

One of the easiest ways to introduce these ideas is to point them out in familiar stories. Since I’ll be teaching an elementary school classroom, I’ll probably focus on Disney movies that are familiar to most of the students. Take, for instance, Frozen: What does Anna want? (She wants to marry Hans, which her sister forbids). What does Elsa want? (To keep her secret, to be left alone). Since neither character can easily have what they want, their needs drive the story forward.

Demonstrate the Concept

Once students have the general idea of conflict, we’ll brainstorm a story as a group. I ask students to brainstorm a list of characters (one of the things I love about kids is how creative they are). And then we’ll pick one. Where does this character live? What does this character want? What might be keeping them from what they want?

Together, we’ll outline a story that has conflict, character, and setting.

Apply the Concept

Once we’ve worked through the story as a group, each student will have a chance to brainstorm their own story.

One of my favorite writing prompts involves putting a variety of characters and settings into a hat and having the students draw one from each hat. So, for this activity, a student might end up with a stinky ninja in a library . . . and they have to figure out what the ninja would want (to not get caught?) and what is keeping him from what he wants (his target can smell him?), and what the ninja does to try and overcome that obstacle.

Quality
Character
Setting
Shy
A student
An amusement park
Loud
An ogre
A campground
Stinky
A yeti
A library
Strong
A fairy
A secret laboratory
Smart
A unicorn
A cave
Cowardly
A super-hero
A beach
Invisible
A baseball player
A graveyard
Funny
A ninja
On a boat
Squirmy
A pirate
On a plane

Honestly? Mostly I’m excited to talk about words with my son and his friends.

What writing exercises have you done with students?